With every new year comes a new batch of resolutions—many of them having to do with our health. Whether we want to exercise more, eat more greens, cut down on sugar or caffeine, or get to bed earlier, we often find ourselves making annual promises to ourselves that we don’t end up keeping past February.
The path to health is a journey, and it’s different for each of us. Creating healthy habits that support our own individual needs is a process that can be started anytime, not just at the beginning of the year. All you need is a clear goal (let’s just ditch the word “resolution” altogether), and a plan for integrating healthy changes and new behaviors into your daily life. The hard part is continuing to choose those new behaviors even when they seem uncomfortable. (We’re all creatures of habit, after all). So with that said, here are a few suggestions for developing healthy habits that actually stick:
1) Focus on one goal at a time
New year resolutions often fail because we simply take on too much change all at once, according to productivity experts like Charles Duhigg and James Clear. Resist the urge to create a laundry list of health goals. Instead, focus on adopting one new healthy habit at a time. If your goal is to quit caffeine, for example, focus on just that goal for a minimum of two months. Researchers in the UK found that it takes, on average, 66 days for a new behavior to become a habit. Interestingly, the same study found that occasional slips in your new routine had no real effect on the long-term outcome. Which means that it’s okay to backslide now and then, as long as you keep returning to your desired behavior.
Top Resolutions for 2018
- Eat healthier
- Exercise more
- Save money
- Improve self-care (e.g. get more sleep)
- Read more
- Learn a new skill
- Make new friends
- Find a new job
- Focus more on relationship
- Cut down on cigarettes/alcohol
(Source: YouGov Dec 2017 online survey report)
2) Make your goal specific—and write it down
Once you’ve chosen your goal, try making it more specific. Instead of setting the goal to “drink more water,” for example, decide how much water you want to drink each day and set the goal to drink that specific amount daily. Want to get more sleep? Decide how many hours a night you need and make that your goal. Need to cut down on caffeine? Decide on your daily limit (i.e., one cup of coffee or tea in the morning) and make that your goal.
Then, grab a pen. According to Dr. Gail Matthews, who led a research study on goal setting at Dominican University, just the act of writing down your goal can be a powerful indicator of whether or not you’re likely to reach your goal. In the study, those who sent weekly updates to friends on their goal progress accomplished significantly more than those who kept their goals to themselves.
Tape your written goal to your bathroom mirror, your refrigerator door, or your computer monitor. Tell your spouse or best friend about it. Your written goal will serve as a daily reminder of what you really want, and will help you say “yes” to the behaviors that help you reach your goal, and “no” to those that don’t.
3) Develop a plan
Set yourself up for success. Make a list of simple steps you can take to help you make your health goal a habit. These should be actions you can integrate easily into your daily routine, right now. Is your goal to improve your diet? Going through your kitchen cupboards and eliminating tempting, sugary sweets from your kitchen might be one action to take. Researching new recipes and meal plans and revising your shopping list is another approach. Trying—and finding—new, healthier foods you enjoy might be one, too. Want to exercise more? Look at what you do now that counts as exercise, and see if you can expand your list. Find a workout partner, a class you enjoy, or schedule a daily walk with a friend. Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Walk or ride your bike to run errands. Use an app or a fitness tool that tracks your steps or miles. The idea is to look at your health goal as a lifestyle change, and not an isolated activity.
4) Cue and reward yourself
When it comes to habit formation, your brain is hard-wired to seek reward, MIT research shows. Many of the things we do daily and automatically—what we eat for breakfast, the route we take to work, the way we brush our teeth—become part of our neural circuitry because of an immediate (as opposed to long-term) perceived benefit. Our brains create a “habit loop” that associates a particular activity with reward, even after that reward is no longer present. What happens right before that activity is the cue that sets the habit loop in motion. So it makes sense to consciously set up your own habit loop for your goal by associating it with a cue, and a reward.
An obvious cue is timing—associating a new activity with a particular time of day. A reward might be scheduling that activity with a friend, or in a particular place. Last year I decided I needed to start doing more weight-bearing exercise. I had always gravitated more toward cardio fitness activities, so the idea of lifting weights seemed foreign and unappealing to me at first. Then I found a fitness class that took place first thing in the morning (cue), on the beach and in the company of other women (reward). The workouts were challenging, but adding one a week to my schedule gradually became routine. And even though waking up early was never my favorite part, seeing the sunrise never got old.
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